In order for the processes of urination and defecation to go smoothly, the various muscles within the pelvis need to act in a coordinated manner. In some cases, the muscles contract when they should be relaxing, or the muscles do not relax sufficiently to facilitate coordinated movement. Problems with the pelvic floor muscles can lead to urinary difficulties and bowel dysfunction. PFD is experienced by both men and women.
Physical therapists (PTs) are experts in movement and function, which sounds like a pretty broad topic to be an expert in, and it is. After physical therapists graduate PT school (now-a-days at the doctoral level), they find their niche and specialize. You can find PTs working with high-level athletes, children, infants, people who are recovering from injuries, people with neurological conditions and many other types of clients.
It can take several months of routine bowel or urinary medications and pelvic floor physical therapy before symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction start to improve. The most important part of treatment is to not give up. Forgetting to take your medications every day will cause your symptoms to continue and possibly get worse. Also, skipping physical therapy appointments or not practicing exercises can slow healing.
The muscles of the pelvic floor must work together and in coordination to perform specific tasks. The pelvic floor has to contract, elongate and relax in very precise ways to perform basic functions like urination, defecation, support the pelvis and organs, and sexual function and pleasure. If your pelvic floor muscles and/or nerves fail to do what they are supposed to do at the right time, problems like painful sex, erectile dysfunction, constipation, and incontinence can occur.
As physical therapists, are our hands are amazing gifts and phenomenal diagnostic tools that we can use to assess restrictions, tender points, swelling, muscle guarding, atrophy, nerve irritation and skeletal malalignment. We also use our hands to treat out these problems, provide feedback to the muscles, and facilitate the activation of certain muscle groups. There have been a great number of manual techniques that have evolved over the course of physical therapy’s history. Let’s go over a few.
Once patients with pelvic floor constipation have these basic tools, they can begin retraining the pelvic floor muscles with biofeedback. Based on the principle of operant conditioning, biofeedback provides auditory and visual feedback to help retrain the pelvic floor and relax the anal sphincter. Biofeedback training is the treatment of choice for medically refractory pelvic floor constipation, with some studies showing improvement in more than 70 percent of patients. Patients also learn to identify internal sensations associated with relaxation and long-term skills and exercises for use at home.
Home exercise programs are essential for each patient. In the case of weakness, a patient will require more pelvic floor, core and functional strengthening and stability exercises. For overactive and pain conditions, the HEP typically consists of relaxation techniques, self-massages (both external and internal), gentle stretching, cardiovascular fitness as tolerated, and eventually pain-free core stability exercises. Both require postural and behavioral modifications and self-care strategies. For more information and detail, check out the book: Heal Pelvic Pain, by Amy Stein or her DVD: Healing Pelvic and Abdominal Pain here.
Electromyography (EMG)/ Pudendal Nerve Motor Latency Testing: These are tests that check to determine how the nerves of the pelvic floor are working. Pudendal nerve motor latency tests evaluate just the pudendal nerve, while EMG is a more complex testing of several nerves in the anal sphincter and pelvic floor. These tests may require needles and small doses of electricity.
It is essential that we, as pelvic floor physical therapists, also include other assessments when we are examining our patients for the very first time. We employ the tried and true physical therapy exam practices to determine if there is an underlying condition elsewhere in your body, such as a strength deficit or alignment issue that could be affecting your pelvic floor. It’s wild to think of it, but something as seemingly unrelated as a flat foot or a hip injury can be enough to set off pelvic and abdominal pain!
Biofeedback: This is the most common treatment, done with the help of a physical therapist. Biofeedback is not painful, and helps over 75% of people with pelvic floor dysfunction. Your physical therapist might use biofeedback in different ways to retrain your muscles. For example, they may use special sensors and video to monitor the pelvic floor muscles as you try to relax or clench them. Your therapist then gives you feedback and works with you to improve your muscle coordination.
Increases bladder and bowel control. The pelvic floor muscles are directly responsible for controlling urine and bowel movements. If these muscles are weak, you’re more likely to experience constipation, urinary incontinence, struggle to control flatulence, or experience urine leakage from forceful activities like when sneezing, coughing, or laughing (called “stress incontinence”). Strengthening your pelvic floor can improve your bowel and bladder control.